Stephen G. Nichols

title.none: Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods

identifier.other: baj9928.9308.005 93.08.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephen G. Nichols, The Johns Hopkins University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1993

identifier.citation: Alexander, Jonathan J.J. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven London: Yale University Press, 1992. Pp. viii + 214.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 93.08.05

Alexander, Jonathan J.J. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven London: Yale University Press, 1992. Pp. viii + 214.

Reviewed by:

Stephen G. Nichols
The Johns Hopkins University

The material in this book first appeared as five James P. R. Lyell Lectures in Bibliography at Oxford University in 1983. At that time, medieval illumination was an understudied field, though in the intervening years it has received wider attention. This seachange explains the somewhat apologetic note on which the work begins and its rather elementary methodological orientation. Conceived at a moment when the "modesty" of the field made it appropriate to offer an introduction, the lectures sought "to provide a general survey and to trace patterns of continuity and change over 'la longue duree'" (1).

The book expands the five original lectures, into six chapters: 1: The Medieval Illuminator: Sources of information; 2: Technical Aspects of the Illumination of a Manuscript; 3: Programmes and Instructions for Illuminators; Chapters 4-6: Illuminators at Work: The Early Middle Ages; the 12th and 13th Centuries; the 14th and 15th Centuries. In addition, the book contains two appendices and a bibliography. The former give the reader a sense of the nature of illuminators' contracts (Appendix 1) and of preliminary marginal drawings (Appendix 2). The selection of contracts contains no new discoveries, having been compiled from printed sources, some relatively inaccessible, and organized chronologically. The bibliography attempts to account for the increased publications on manuscript illumination in the last decade, though it is not comprehensive.

Professor Alexander possesses a consummate historical knowledge of the field of medieval illumination. One could only expect from him the thoroughly-researched and -documented introduction to the subject that this book so richly provides. Beginning, in Chapter 1, with a review of the extant evidence on who the illuminators were, he seeks to situate them in their "social and historical context." While space and the lecture context limit the extent to which he can hope to realize that aim, he does offer rare examples showing painters and their assistants at work, indicating at once the hierarchical training system and--in one case, at least, where a mouse attacks the lunch table of the preoccupied artists--the material tribulations under which they labored.

Alexander's presentation of the technical aspects of manuscript illumination and the programs and instructions for

illuminations take the reader straight to the crux of these important material aspects of the art. Workmanlike and well-framed, the chapters offer an accessible synthesis, without neglecting to show how important historical information could be conveyed and thus gleaned from initials. Thus an historiated initial showing a bishop blessing a stole suggests "that the illustration had an important function for the Pope in the matter of ceremonial procedure." Whereas the manuscript told him what to do, it did not "tell him certain other things which he needed to know, such as whether to sit, or stand, or wear his mitre. So the pictures were an essential part of the manuscript" (71).

Chapters 4-6 constituting the second half of the book provide a surprisingly comprehensive historical survey of the range and breadth of illuminations. Mechanical though it may seem, the strict chronological approach in this case has the virtue of allowing the reader to realize that the changes that occurred in illuminations during the Middle Ages had less to do with skill or competence than function, a gradual assertion of artistic independence, and an ever-widening subject matter.

Alexander ends his account, appropriately, at the point where the artist, having freed his illustrations from subservience to the text, finally liberated them altogether from the book.